A Prayer for the People of God: A Reflection on John 17.6-19

I have to admit that I groaned a little when I saw that today’s Gospel reading was from John 17. It’s actually a beautiful passage in its own way, recording Jesus’ impassioned prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane in the hours before he was arrested. But, with its stream-of-consciousness style, which loops back on itself in a complicated stream of ‘I’s, ‘You’s, and ‘They’s, this prayer often feels like a knotted ball of yarn, or like headphone chords that have spent too long in my pocket.

What do I mean? Let’s take a look at the prayer, line by line, where ‘I’ refers to Jesus, ‘you’ refers to the Father, and ‘they’ refers to the disciples:

  • I have made your name known to them
  • They were yours but you gave them to me
  • They have kept your word
  • They now that everything you have given me is from you
  • You have me words that I gave to them
  • They know that I came from you and believe that you sent me
  • My petition is for them (the ones you gave me) because they are yours
  • What is mine is yours and what is yours is mine
  • I have been glorified in them
  • They are where I am no longer because I am coming to you
  • Protect them in your name that you gave to me
  • So that they may be one as you and I are one

And on and on.

What are we to make of all this?

While this convoluted style is confusing, I believe it is actually part of the point. For the message of this prayer is that Jesus longs for his followers to be tied, wrapped up and looped together with one another and with God, in the same way that his life is tied, wrapped up and looped together with theirs and with God’s. And what better way to get that point across than to relate it in ties and loops?

This notion is supported by the petition at the heart of the prayer: “Protect them … that they may be one, as we are one.” Amidst all the confusion of relationships in the prayer, what Jesus really wants is quite simple: unity.

But this unity is not imagined as a monolithic thing. It is unity in diversity and diversity in unity. We each have been given our own lives to live — with our own strengths, weaknesses, challenges, contexts, and vocations. But these are to be lived and expressed with as much harmony as we can — or rather, God can — muster. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity may be intellectually confounding, but it is a profound expression of this truth: the unity at the centre of all things is not sameness. It is not one note, but is harmony.

The ancient Church Fathers described the Trinity using the beautiful image of dancers interwoven together, each doing their own thing, yet moving as one. (When I think of this, the Sufi ‘whirling dervishes’ always come to mind.) This divine dance — the theological term is perichoresis — is the model for the Christian life. We each have our own energies, but they are inspired by the unified and uniting energy of God, which brings us together in the dance.

What a beautiful reminder for us this week, as we prepare for the great and holy feast of Pentecost next Sunday. Unity in diversity and diversity in unity. May we be one as God is one.

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